Saturday, October 29, 2005

After Han-Shan

Was looking through on-line bookstores last night, & found this:
Title: SENGAI CALENDAR, 1963.Author: Suzuki, Daisetz T.
Description: Tokyo: Idemitsu Kosan Co., Ltd., 1963, 1st edition, stapled white wraps, 29 pages. Wraps lightly sunned & soiled, otherwise Very Good. Paperback. Item # 184543 $12.50
When I worked at the Embassy of Japan in New Zealand in the early sixties, one of the joys was the annual calendar – one amongst hundreds – from a Zaibatsu called Idemitsu Kosan. Its owner, Sazo Idemitsu, made & lost about five fortunes over the years, but what he maintained was the world’s premier collection of black-ink – sumi-e – paintings & scrolls by the great master Sengai, & the calendars were beautifully produced reproductions of some of these. Plus they had an introduction by Daisetz T. Suzuki.
“Sengai (1750-1837) was born in Idemitsu's home town of Fukuoka. During his lifetime he was well-known for his humorous drawings of the Zen Buddhist monastic world. Sengai was a prolific artist and his irreverent paintings of Zen monks were held in high regard. There are also a seriousness, a purity of expression, and a spontaneity in Sengai's work, which probably most influenced Idemitsu to collect hundreds of Sengai's paintings.”
I ended up with, from memory, five calendars – I didn’t work at the Embassy for that number of years, but I was there for all or part of four of them, plus there was the first calendar that had come out in 1960. All part of my first library, now lost. (He breaks off, almost weeping, remembering the signed Surrealists texts, the complete Olympia Press catalogue, almost every small press publication by almost everyone in The New American Poetry, &, &,&…..)

But back to Sengai. Amongst the paintings were several of Han-Shan, at least one of them with his crazy friend Shih-te who used to sweep the monastry at Kuo-ch’ing. I’d read Han-Shan’s Cold Mountain poems in translation by both Arthur Waley & Gary Snyder, loved them, loved Sengai’s painting. & so, one of my first ekphrastic poems, from about 40 years ago. I don’t know if the painting below is the one that provoked the poem – I seem to remember Shih-te having a twig broom – but it’ll serve more than adequately.
Han-Shan, old chinese poet madman,
tramp & hermit, a true poet of the colloquial.
Often he came down from Cold Mountain
to visit Shih-te at the Kuo-ch’ing Temple.
The monks there cannot understand them;
these two madmen laugh at everything — Ha Ha!
Their laughter rings out, loud & clear
as the black-ink brush strokes of this painting.

1 comment:

Graham Jones said...

That brings back memories.